Anyone who spends enough time around me knows that I love board games (some of them no doubt wish that I would shut up about them, sorry Jennifer). Over the past couple of years, their importance has grown for me. Aside from being fun, when I play board games, it is something that I can focus the entirety of my attention on, allowing me to stop thinking about work or whatever might be stressing me out. That benefit, combined with providing a framework for social interaction (talking to strangers is a lot less awkward when you have something to talk about, board games are perfect for this), makes board gaming an ideal hobby, for me at least. So what am I talking about when I talk about board games? Monopoly? Risk? Not really. Both of those are board games, yes, but it in the same way that an Apple II is a computer: it is, and it was really cool when it came out, but it has long since been superseded by vastly improved computers. Modern board games are a huge and varied thing these days, and looking at the shelf of your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) for the first time can be an experience akin to looking at the craft beer section of a well stocked supermarket: You know sort of what is going on in front of you but you don’t have a good idea if you’ll actually like whatever you pick out. Towards that end, I am putting together a list of board games that I enjoyed playing in 2014.
This year, I logged 166 plays (not of 166 different games, mind you, Star Realms alone accounts for 24 plays). I have put together a list of my top 11. They aren’t games that came out in 2014, necessarily, but they are games that I played in 2014. In addition, I’m restricting myself to games that I’ve played at least twice, as a game can seem great the first time around then fall flat on the second play. These games aren’t in any particular order, I’m not going to attempt to figure out if one is better than the other given that I like them all for different reasons with different people in different conditions. Without further ado, here’s the list:
Star Realms – Star Realms is a light, competitive deckbuilding game. To my mind, deckbuilders come in two flavors, “Dominion” and “Ascension”. Dominion style have a common pool of cards for players to buy (which is how they build their decks) that doesn’t change much during the game, as there are multiple copies of each card. Ascension style games also have a common set of cards that both players can buy from, but the selection changes from turn to turn and there are only a few duplicates (of weaker cards). Both styles of game have their strengths and weaknesses, so I won’t go into which is better. Star Realms is part of the Ascension family of games. The thing that makes Star Realms stand out is how quick and inexpensive the game is (15 minutes and $15) and how much player interaction there is (the goal of the game is to destroy your opponent, not to collect victory points like in Dominion, which can feel like multiplayer Solitaire). If you’re on the fence, the app is free and very good. Recommended for: anyone who wants a light, inexpensive, deckbuilder; recovering Magic: The Gathering players who want something to scratch the itch without taking over their lives and ruining their credit scores.
Puzzle Strike Shadows – This one is another deckbuilder, but in the Dominion style. It doesn’t play as quickly as Star Realms, and is much more expensive, but I the gameplay is deeper (lots of combinations and permutations while still remaining very balanced). The really cool thing about Puzzle Strike is that instead of cards, you play with chips (think poker chips made out of cardboard) which you draw out of a bag rather than shuffling. As shuffling is the most annoying part about playing deckbuilders (you usually start the game with ten cards that you cycle through very quickly, meaning you spend a lot of time shuffling a tiny deck, which is just annoying). I picked up Shadows rather than the base game because it is a stand alone expansion and my wife liked the art better. I plan on getting the base game this year. Recommended for: people who want a rich and highly interactive deckbuilder.
Mr. Jack Pocket – Mr. Jack is a classic asymmetrical deduction game in which one player plays as Jack the Ripper and the other as Sherlock. Players take alternating turns trying to confound their opponent (Sherlock attempts to narrow down the pool of suspects and Jack does his best to avoid this). I liked the original, but I felt that the setup and rules were too cumbersome for what was actually going on. Mr. Jack Pocket (or Jack Junior as my wife affectionately calls it) fixes all this. It does not attempt to miniaturize the game, but rather reinterprets it in such a way that the game is distilled down to its purest essence. The setup, rules, and gameplay are elegant enough that I can teach the game to a new player and get two or three full games in over the space of an hour with enough time left over to eat lunch (I have done this a few times now). All of this without sacrificing the depth of the original. Recommended for: people who want a quick and intense two player game with high portability.
Province – Province is the first microgame that I backed on Kickstarter. A eurogame small enough to be shipped in a letter envelope and streamlined enough to play in 25 minutes. It is not a heavy game by any stretch, but there is a surprising amount of depth here. This sort of game is also one reason why I love shorter games: its brevity creates a sort of freedom, you can try all sorts of crazy strategies and if they don’t work out, you haven’t spent two hours in the learning. For $5 I can’t think of a reason not to buy this game. Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.
Burgoo – Another microgame that cost $5. This is my go-to lunchtime game for more than two players (although it plays quite well with two, as well), it is easy to teach, short, and being a game about soup, the theme fits perfectly. After I received it, it sat on my shelf for about a month, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually play it (it had been an impulse purchase) and the rules didn’t immediately ‘click’ for me (through no fault of their own, the mechanics are different from anything else I’ve played before, as soon as I actually started to play, it all made sense immediately). Once I gave it a shot, however, I absolutely loved it. It feels quick and light, but the endgame can turn into a bit of a brain burner (in a good way, as I usually play it at lunch and while one player is thinking of how to screw over their fellow chefs everyone else is actually eating, no one gets bored). Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.
Vikings – Vikings, you know them: longboats, horned helmets, axes, pillaging. This game has nothing to do with any of that, instead focusing on the other stuff they did, namely founding settlements, trading, and farming. This game consists of six rounds in which players take turns buying island tiles and viking meeples from a really clever rotating rondel that adjusts the prices for things as each turn progresses. The game plays quickly (about an hour), has plenty of indirect interaction, and is full of interesting decisions. I had been wanting to try it for a long time but it was out of print, so when I heard about the reprint I requested a copy from my FLGS. Money well spent. Recommended for: anyone looking for a quick mid-weight economic game.
Waggle Dance – One of my goals this year is to spend less money on Kickstarter, particularly for larger companies who are using it as a preorder system. I have nothing against that, personally, but it screws with my budgeting. So, going forward, I want to shift my focus to backing games that might not succeed without me. Waggle Dance falls squarely in this category. It met its funding goal, but just barely. And man is it a great game. It is all about building a hive and making honey, with each player having a ton of dice representing bees which are used to take actions. It feels really elegant, has beautiful design, and you get to chuck a ton of dice (each player can get as many as eighteen, though ties are broken by the player with the fewest bees, which makes for a really interesting dynamic). Recommended for: anyone looking for a “dicer placement” game that can range from light-weight lighthearted filler to a cutthroat medium-weight game.
Dungeon Lords – “Well, everyone got what they wanted this turn.” Wait, I must be thinking of a different game. Dungeon Lords is a game about building a dungeon and killing pesky heroes, in which you never have quite enough actions or resources to make things work out like you want them to. That might sound kind of harsh, but I absolutely love this game. It is hard (even when I win, I feel like I’m losing for the entire game), but very rewarding (even when I lose, I have a great time, partially due to the shared suffering of the rest of the players). The learning curve is steep (expect to spend some time learning how things work before royally botching your first game) and the game isn’t for everyone, but if you know someone who owns a copy, you need to at least give it a shot. Recommended for: people who are distraught that things are just too easy in their lives; people who want to feel like they have accomplished something, even when they lose.
Tzolk’in – Tzolk’in is one of those games that looked as if it might be a flash in the pan when it came out in 2012. It is a worker placement game (a game in which the primary mechanic is placing pawns–“workers”–onto a limited pool of actions that are available to the other players, too). It has a beautiful board with a giant rotating gear in the center. When it first came out, I thought that its popularity might be due to the novelty of the board, but it turns out that there is a solid game underneath those rotating wheels and that it does some interesting things with the mechanic. Usually in a worker placement game you take turns selecting actions and once everyone is out of workers, you get to do the things that you chose. In Tzolk’in, however, the workers stay on their spots until the player chooses to remove them, and because those spots are on gears that get rotated by the central wheel, the longer you wait to pull off your workers, the better the actions you can do. When combined with the variety of paths to victory, the result is a game that is packed with interesting decisions. Probably my favorite game of all time. Recommended for: anyone who isn’t afraid of some brain work.
2 de Mayo – When people ask me about games that I love but that no one seems to have heard about, 2 de Mayo is my go-to answer. It is often referred to as a wargame, but it lacks many of the stereotypical hallmarks of the genre: it is not a long, sprawling, complex game, but rather a short, tight, focused brain-burner. It plays really quickly (30 minutes) and I’m glad for that because I don’t think that I could handle it for any longer. The game is about Napolean’s invasion of Madrid on, you guessed it, May 2nd. The Spanish player’s goal is simply to survive ten turns and the French player is trying to destroy all of the Spanish forces while controlling all of the city entrances. The result is a cat-and-mouse game that is combined with secret orders and simultaneous actions. I may not always be in the mood for it, but I love it. Recommended for: People wanting a quick, tense filler. History buffs (the rulebook has an overview of situation and all of the event cards are based on things that actually happened).
Brass – I should be clear that I’ve only played this game twice and don’t know it nearly as well as the others on this list. That being said, I love it. It is the heaviest game on this list, I think, but doesn’t feel dry. I love just about everything about Brass, but there are a few things that stand out. First, I love the canal/railway dichotomy. Halfway through the game, all of the canals that you’ve spent so much blood and treasure building become obsolete, but most of the buildings in the cities that they connect stay around, leaving a very interesting puzzle as players have to rebuild the infrastructure. Second, it does interdependence very well, as you can sell cotton through your opponents ports benefitting them in the short term but possibly wrecking their timing (as they might have trouble selling their cotton after that. Finally, I love the theme. For me, well done theme means that the game feels like what it represents (Cash N Guns, for example, definitely feels like you are getting screwed over by your criminal associates), and Brass feels like a bunch of entrepreneurs scrambling to ride the tide of modernization. Recommended for: people who like economic games but want some flavor, too. Anyone watching Peaky Blinders.
Games I’m excited to play this year: Taluva, Panamax, Harbour, Impulse, Republic of Rome, and Tigris and Euphates. More on those in a future post.
Thanks to Zach Havok for pointing me to the post (worth checking out, by the way, as is the rest of the blog) that inspired this list, by eclectic blogger Keith Law. Zach is also the reason that the list is eleven items and not, say, ten (he really likes eleven, I guess).